At the recently held star-studded concert in honour of King Sunny Ade’s 70th birthday and 50th anniversary on stage, Chris Ogunlowo and I were watching Tiwa Savage wing her cover of his ‘Merciful God’. Then, a smiling man, probably in his late 40s, shoved a book in our faces. It was a book about the Juju maestro presumably authored by the man, an expose on the lyrical content of Sunny Ade’s music as it applies to Christianity.
The book sold for a not-so-modest price of 3000 naira. I was going to buy if he answered one question: what is your favourite Sunny LP?
It was a trick question.
The smiling man lost his smile and brooded for a moment, and then the smile returned.
Conscience, he said.
I bought his book not because I assumed it is the definitive biography or that it will tell me anything I did not already know about Sunny Ade, but because I am curious about the quality and intensity of the relationship musicophiles have with songs.
If I had asked myself that same question last year, the answer I will give will be different from what I will give today.
Last year, I will say Sunny Ti De from his Return of the Juju Music album, which, for me, reinstated Sunny Ade back to his true Juju roots. This album came after his brief sojourn in America after the Grammy nomination for his second album with Island Records. ‘Return of Juju Music’ is the public showing of his Golden Mercury band, the phoenix that rose from the ashes of the African Beats Band that never quite returned from America.
This year, my favourite album by Sunny Ade is Seven Degrees North (SDN), one of his compilation albums at the end of the millennium. King Sunny Ade is such a restless creative spirit who keeps rehashing his material, reworking them to perfection. A master guitarist, he has energized Juju music better than his forebears have by introducing synthesizers, vibraphones and the steel-pedal guitar while still using his mellow vocals laden with Yoruba idioms and proverbs to firmly keep juju close to its roots.
Seven Degrees North belongs to a trio of albums recorded in American studios and released to American market. The other two albums are E Dide and Odu. Odu was a massive hit and phenomenal success in America, bagging Sunny his second Grammy nomination. There is that conversation about how the Grammy needed King Sunny Ade, Fela, Papa Wemba to be great but we won’t have that conversation today.
There is also the conversation about how Odu, released before SDN, got the acclaim while the latter got the backseat but it will be a short one. Odu is fast-paced, scintillating, flirtatious and charismatic. It portrays an up-standing attitude of Juju music, which is not its usual mode but it was what made Sir Shina Peters, one of Sunny Ade’s protégés, popular across Nigeria.
In converse, SDN is mellow and contemplative. Named for the location of Lagos to the Equator, it is arguably the best compilation of vintage Sunny Ade songs. Of course, there is Juju Music, his first release on the Island Record imprint which did more than revisit the creative angst and answered the rhetorical question of his 70s classic, ‘E Kilo Fomode’. On the same album was King Sunny Ade’s biggest hit in the world market till date ‘Ja Funmi’ profiled by the Rolling Stone magazine.
On the jacket of SDN, King Sunny Ade’s face is creased into a gleeful smile and in the background there is a sprawling picture of a Lagoon and a column of skyscrapers. Interestingly the first song on this album, ‘Samba’, perhaps a synonym for Sunny’s juju music, is mid-tempo, defiantly percussive with the masterful guitar solos that he is best known for.
As if this sultry introduction to Sunny’s Lagos is not unsettling enough, the next song, ‘Suku Suku Bam Bam’ announces his arrival in proverbial and musical terms. In a sense, this song is a rehash of an earlier production of less sonic mastery; here the song is revisited and trimmed to a consummate product which portrays the divine worship, modern juju music, as invented by I.K Dairo, aspires to. The wail of the steel pedal guitar brings with it a moving nostalgia that alternates with the coarse and mellow vocals of Sunny Ade and his African beats band which can move you to tears, to slow dance or to both.
Those familiar with Sunny Ade’s music album know that it is markedly different from his live performances. The juju maestro with nimble feet is known to have mastered the feat of praise singing to the hilt. But on Seven Degrees North, praise singing is second place; this is almost music for juju music sake. And juju, in this context, is neither voodoo nor African magic; it has also gone beyond the throw of tambourines. This juju has travelled to America and acquired a sonic consciousness that is rapturous, hypnotic and ambitious. The lead guitar in King Sunny Ade’s hand often calls the music back when it wanders too far, too deep into itself, when the music begins to feed on itself.
‘Ode Ma ti P’Ogidan Soko’ is in praise of the hunter who killed a tiger, the hunter has erstwhile been jinxed to the extent that he couldn’t boast of killing a rat. An idiom in itself, this song revels in deep exploration of Yoruba language and its animist tendencies, which juju music, despite a heritage traceable to the early missionary church, did not quite shy away from.
‘Solution’, one of the longer tunes, is a burst of delight that begins with a divine plea and mid-way saunters into the realms of thanksgiving, all the while being led by strong and insistent guitar rhythms that won’t let anyone’s feet stay still.
Seven Degrees North is much mellower than the accomplished Odu. Its victory is in its blend of sounds that did not become a cacophony; rather it becomes a moving adagio to the city of Lagos. There is the issue of class snobbery that has always plagued juju music, perhaps the reason why the less sophisticated fuji music, which has no class restrictions, continues to thrive. The mastery and control of juju music has not left the hands of her masters who are now in the evening of the lives.
Sunny Ade, still very much a Yoruba culture icon, is a delight to watch on stage even at age 70. Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey’s aging is not as sprightly but he still leads his band to his old tunes. There is hardly any popular juju musician who is not more than age forty. Like Sunny’s Fender guitar recently auctioned for a whooping 52.1 million, juju music and by extension, Seven Degrees North, is a collector’s item.